Substitute 20 years of perpetually gray Polish winter for another day of sun, and you’ve got Pawel Pawlikowski’s La La Land in Cold War — a film whose astute, aggressive inquisition of art as a bureaucratic cudgel gives way to boringly doomed romance.
Pawlikowski’s latest work — Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film — opens in 1949 Poland, as Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot) and his team of musical ethnographers gather field recordings from impoverished postwar Poles fraught with woe. In the face of oppression and strife, creative expression is all these people have left … and here are a bunch of hubristic elitists gaffling its sound and style to shape the next generation of polished Polish performers.
With the government’s blessing — and under the watchful eye of dutiful, duplicitous yes-man Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) — Wiktor opens a musical conservatory, where he’s smitten by Zula (Joanna Kulig), an enigmatic, headstrong vocalist many years his junior.
Zula is unafraid to call out Wiktor on his copious amounts of bullshit, all related to his complacency in co-opting an entire people’s dying dream for a regime-pleasing performing arts center. At least in the first act, neither does Pawlikowski shirk on aggressive interrogation of such pride built on the backs of “the music of pain, humiliation and joy, if through tears” and the tactics of those who, like Wiktor, would use it to shape a nation’s tastes and teens to what he finds bankable.
Is all this music truly beautiful or just part of the bureaucracy in maintaining misery to repel a revolution? Is art something that can really heal the horrors of a nation … or just ephemeral ecstasy, a continual casualty of war chipped away by aggression? As Wiktor and Zula consummate their antagonistic tension through sex, that also feels like an emotional revolt — a dynamic of pianissimo in the streets and fortissimo in the sheets. Łukasz Żal’s stunning cinematography also emphasizes the insidious, intrusive nature of the body politic, particularly in a shot of a Joseph Stalin banner that, when dropped, minimizes the music-makers beneath it.
But Pawlikowski tosses all this by the wayside as the winds of culture and politics rearrange the landscape for Wiktor and Zula, she becoming Poland’s brightest star and he escaping to Paris to express himself through jazz. By compressing the next 20 years in the remaining hour and coupling it with a 1.33:1 Academy ratio, Cold War feels like webisodes strung together about a single-minded dolt and one woman’s unconvincingly undying love for him. Wiktor and Zula are only ever defined by their relationship, and even then not very well; attempting to hang the film on their emotions rather than the cultural context of the early goings proves a fatal error.
At least Cold War remains gorgeous to gaze upon, Żal’s crisp black-and-white cinematography rivaling the might of Roma for sheer visual beauty. One scene in which Zula lets a river’s current carry her away while she sings feels like an apt metaphor for her character … but also for the film as it drifts into standard-issue artsy apathy. Cold War is beautifully shot, but also deleteriously episodic and emotionally inaccessible — ultimately just some eye-catching flotsam floating downstream.